The gobblers are out in force in Wisconsin - -and the "force is with us" as far as Badgerland turkey hunters are concerned. Wisconsin's wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) population has exploded.
Reintroduced to Wisconsin in 1976, the wild turkey has re-found its home among the Cheeseheads. We found some interesting population statistics, which are so far outdated that they make little sense today - -one survey from who knows what year placed Wisconsin's wild turkey population at 20,000 - -in 2010 that number is almost 40,000 less than the number HARVESTED! In 2007 Wisconsin's wild turkey population was estimated at between 450,000 and 500,000. While we can only estimate what the population is some four years later in 2011, based on what we've seen ourselves and heard from avid turkey hunters, the population may be as high 600,000-700,000- - plus or minus. And as all estimates are, these figures are just that: "Estimates." But, having said that, it's more and more common to see flocks of turkeys in fields that contain more than 50 birds. Turkey flocks are seen in backyards, on golf course and in corn fields as far and wide as anywhere in Wisconsin - -including the far northern counties.
As for harvest and permits, in 2010 nearly 56,000 wild turkeys were harvested, in the spring and fall season combined. Wisconsin made 225,700 permits available for the 2011 spring hunt, with about 80,000 tags available for purchase after the initial offering. Turkey hunting is growing in popularity, and the harvest is increasing.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Wisconsin's wild turkey population continues to show relatively good, healthy numbers, and that while brood size has increased slightly, turkey brood production appears to have leveled off somewhat. We scratch our heads trying to figure out what the DNR means. Terms like "relative", "somewhat," and "slightly" don't mean much in the real world. Those terms are used to protect the DNR from overstating or understating numbers. Based on our observations and discussions with HUNTERS, not bureaucrats, we'll just come out and say it: The turkey population in Wisconsin is enormous, and growing each year.
When the wild turkey was reintroduced in 1976, it was in the southern part of Wisconsin. Each year, the population expands and moves further northward. Now, it is admitted that in the far northern Wisconsin counties, the turkey population is certainly nowhere near what it is in the central and southern parts of the state, BUT, it is growing in the north. Indeed, hunters we've spoken to are seeing more and more wild turkeys as the population expands northward; and the northern harvest continues to get better.
Wisconsin is divided into seven wild turkey management zones. Each zone has its own special and at times peculiar persona. There are two seasons - -spring and fall. As it stands now in the spring, hunters can take one male or one bearded (yes- - there are FEMALE bearded turkeys here-and-there) per tag. In the fall, a hunter can take one turkey of any age or sex. And then there's the wonderful opportunity for kids, that Wisconsin champions: There's a youth spring turkey hunt - -two days of kids only (10- 15) hunting. Plenty of regs about the kids hunt, so check carefully about permits and requirements.
The turkey seasons - -both spring and fall - -are divided into periods, and zones, depending on the season – and like everything else in hunting, these days/dates/ periods/zones vary by year. Again - -can be most confusing, so check carefully with the DNR before going out. Wisconsin can be proud of itself in having special regs and permits for the disabled - - such as being able to use a crossbow, special firearm formats; or being able to hunt from a stationary vehicle on private land- - things like that. Seniors over 65 can use crossbows to hunt wild turkeys in Wisconsin. There are also many FREE turkey hunting education courses held around the state sponsored by the Wisconsin DNR.
As for the birds themselves. We've seen good numbers (and this without hype) that go to 23-25 pounds, with gorgeous fans, and beautiful markings – and friends, anyone who has ever had the privilege of tasting a wild turkey will tell you how difficult it is to ever go back to a domestic bird. They are truly delicious – especially all of those Wisconsin turkeys that scarf down farmers' fields of corn and other crops.
A real nice thing about hunting turkeys in Wisconsin is there are large groups (comparatively) who hunt with bow and arrow as opposed to a shotgun. They are quite successful, but it's very challenging, as the kill zone on a turkey with a bow and arrow can be quite small. From what our turkey bow hunting friends tell us, they try to use a guillotine (pronounced "gill-oh-teen") arrow and strike the neck or head area. That's one real tough shot, but more and more are doing it, because of the pure challenge.
What area to hunt? It depends on what you're looking for - -as far as area is concerned. You can hit the urban and southern areas, you can target the central areas, or you can go north, and enjoy a lot of solitude, but without the bang-bang population opportunities that you have in the central and southern regions - -at least right now. Turkey hunting, while certainly being available on the enormous stands of public land in Wisconsin, at times take a back seat to hunting private land- - particularly farm land. And we can tell you that Wisconsin farmers, if approached courteously, will usually allow hunting on their property. Turkeys can decimate a farmer's spring planting and fall crops. We have heard stories from turkey hunters in the central Wisconsin area that say that huge flocks of these birds will literally follow a farmer who is planting seed, gobbling up the seed as fast as it's dropped on the soil.
As for infrastructure - -in Wisconsin you've got nothing but excellent, toll free roads. You can get anywhere quickly and easily. There are also myriad wilderness and forest roads and trails all over the state. And the wild turkey season dates are generous, usually running for a number of months in the fall (September-December, depending on the zone), and about six weeks in the spring (mid April to near the end of May). Remember these are just generalities. There are specific "periods" in which to hunt during the season, with a few days break between periods.
As with all hunting opportunities in Wisconsin, the availability of good infrastructure, services, accommodations, equipment, food, beverage, local celebrations and events is a "gimme" in Badgerland – especially in the fall, when the Green Bay Packers take center stage. Just wear green and gold and you'll be OK- - although Cheeseheads really enjoy seeing their Bear and Viking friends dressed in dark blue and orange or purple and gold – with a small snicker under their breath, of course.
Another nice thing about Wisconsin, is that you can bring a friend to "call" your birds in, even if that person has no turkey tag/permit. The only restriction is that this person may not carry/use a shotgun or bow and arrow. In other words that person can assist you, but cannot actually hunt. As for the DNR website. With turkeys it is much easier to navigate than for deer, for instance. A lot less convoluted commentary and regs, and much easier to get specific answers to questions. URL for the DNR Website: http://dnr.wi.gov/. Address and phone: 101 S. Webster Street, PO Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921. 608-266-2621.